Since I began painting, I’ve heard good things about Cheap Joe’s American Journey watercolors and have been itching to give them a go. These artist-grade pigments are crafted into more than 100 colors right here in the U.S. and are often recommended for their excellent performance at an excellent price.
When I took the tour of Cheap Joe’s headquarters, I was kindly offered several tubes to sample plus a discount to stock up on more. Who could resist? I took the plunge and walked out with the colors in my 12-color palette plus a few extra convenience shades to try.
First Impressions of American Journey Watercolors
When I got home and squeezed the colors into pans, I was a bit surprised. These paints are thicker than any I’ve used, similar to the consistency of toothpaste. This viscosity is also noticeable when painting— there’s not a lot of fluidity and movement in these paints.
American Journey watercolors prefer to stay where you put them, in the palette and on the paper.
Whether you like this or not depends on how you paint. While this trait does make some techniques easier (like maintaining a shape in wet-on-wet), it also makes some techniques (like a smooth wash) more difficult. Also, I often enjoy the watercolor surprises created by the high fluidity of other brands, but American Journey paints dilute beautifully so adding enough water to create a nice flow is easy.
My friend, Bekki, used a watercolor medium with these paints and shared with me how that can increase dispersement. Since I know nothing about mediums, I'll share her expert tip with you:
"Adding DaVinci Watercolor Medium, 10 drops to a 2 tablespoon spray bottle, for prewetting and use during painting will give you gorgeous results. I was even able to get beautiful results on Canson XL watercolor paper, which is not easy! The ability to add flow to American Journey paints for initial washes, and then have almost none for second and third layers was interesting and fun."
American Journey watercolors work best with a thorough spritzing before use.
I'm accustomed to rewetting my paints with nothing more than a brush dip or two, but most American Journey colors need a little more. Once adequately moistened (which takes little effort— these are not hard pigments to rewet), the colors come alive and are very smooth and strikingly bold. And they stay bold.
American Journey watercolors suffer little to no loss of color as they dry.
This is my favorite thing about these watercolors. These paints have some serious stamina! However, this attribute makes these paints appear rather opaque and may also be what limits their mobility. Nearly all the colors I tried diluted consistently, so transparency is easy to attain.
Most American Journey watercolors displayed slight to no granulation.
However, some colors displayed beautiful granulation, like Cerulean, and some colors granulated even when I wasn’t expecting it, like Transparent Oxide Brown. None of the colors I tried were overly granulating or difficult to control. This is my second favorite thing about these watercolors.
The granulation & dispersement range make these watercolors a good option for beginners.
Granulation and flow can be difficult to manage in a painting, so American Journey paints could be an excellent choice for beginning watercolorist who often lack control, confidence, and experience.
American Journey watercolors could also please the pickiest expert.
Though I highly recommend beginners give these watercolors a go, American Journey should never be limited to beginners. These are beautiful, high-quality, artist-grade watercolors, and overall they perform extremely well. They come in a wealth of colors and are used by professional artists worldwide. (There's something to be said for that.)
But whether or not you'll love American Journey depends much on your personal preference and painting style. The watercolors are vibrant, easy to handle, and in most cases, affordable. But just like all other top brands, all of American Journey's colors do not perform equally.
Below, I share more information and my opinion regarding the individual colors I sampled for this review along with swatches* and tips for choosing and using American Journey watercolors.
*Unless otherwise noted, all sketches and swatches for this post were painted using only American Journey watercolors on Cheap Joe's Kilimanjaro 140# bright white CP watercolor paper. Please make color allowances for monitor discrepancies. Clicking on the color's title (below) will take you to the product at Cheap Joe's so you can compare additional swatches. You can also download a complete color chart here.
Review of American Journey Watercolor Colors
Cerulean Blue (PB36)
This is a very pretty Cerulean that paints extremely well and has a moderate amount of granulation. However, the 15 ml tube is more expensive than any other brand out there. Just like AJ's Permanent Rose (see below), I only recommend this one if if you can catch it on serious sale or it would make sense to buy the 37 ml tube.
Cobalt Blue (PB28)
AJ’s Cobalt is a lovely color with slight granulation, but it was often unpredictable when drying and chronically speckled even on artist-grade papers. (You can see this effect in the swatch above.) However, since a 37 ml tube currently costs less than $25, which is an excellent value for cobalt, I think it's worth a try.
Green Gold (PY129)
I'm currently using M. Graham’s weird and wonderful Azo green, which is the same pigment, so American Journey has some competition. However, when I’m not on guard against this usurper, I like it a lot. Like REALLY a lot. It paints silky smooth and mixes well. And since it’s spot on the exact same color as MG's Azo, AJ's 37 ml price will certainly win me over.
Joe’s Yellow (PY154), Red (PY254), Blue (PB15) & Green (PG7)
These are obviously Joe’s staple colors, hence the names, and they are all solid performers. And wow, the prices are amazing! The 37 ml tubes are a steal, especially when purchased during one of Joe’s sales. If you enjoy these pigments, I highly recommend any of these as foundation palette colors. All four of these together make an excellent, four-color watercolor palette.
Permanent Rose (PV19)
This is a gorgeous quin rose with a slightly blue undertone. It paints well, but even on sale, it currently costs around $15 for a 15 ml tube. That’s more than M. Graham’s Quin Rose ($10), Daniel Smith’s Quin Rose ($13), and even pricey Winsor & Newton’s Permanent Rose ($14). Unless you value size to the 37ml tube, other brands of PV19 are just as lovely and cost less.
Prussian Blue (PB27)
I’m not normally a Prussian user and have never met one I truly liked, but the AJ Prussian has won me over. Prussian can sometimes be a bit bossy, but this one is calm enough to blend easily into a palette and is an excellent mixer. (Try it with AJ's Transparent Oxide Red!) Plus, it’s a pretty blue, not overly warm or green like some Prussians I’ve tried.
Raw Sienna (PBr7)
Just a perfectly lovely, buttery, raw sienna. Period. It's probably one of the loveliest raw siennas I've ever used, and as long as the price is right, I’ll be purchasing it from here on out. For a smashing great deal, grab it in the 37 ml size.
Raw Umber (PBr7)
Unfortunately, this is just about the weakest, streakiest raw umber I’ve ever dipped my brush into. Based on the color, I assume this is a natural umber which would be pretty if it wasn't so difficult to handle. Regardless of my giving it the old college try, it never did grow on me. At all. Sorry AJ, but this color needs to head back to the mixing board.
Transparent Oxide Brown (PR101)
I’m very picky about my browns, but this rich, warm color is excellent. It performs very well and looks gorgeous in every application. Mixed with a blue, it bestows an incredible range of blacks and grays. It even has a slight bit of granulation, but not enough to be distracting. Since a 37 ml tube costs less than $10 (wow), this will likely become my go-to brown.
Transparent Oxide Red (PR101)
I consider PR101 a palette essential, and in swatches I thought AJ's version a bit too orange... until I painted with it. In application, it softens beautifully but still gives landscapes and other elements a nice little pop of color. This PR101 paints and mixes extremely well and is now my go-to TOR. I've already moved up to a 37ml tube.
Prices in this post are from Cheap Joe’s website at the time of publication. Everything is subject to change at any moment, but hopefully this will provide you with a guideline upon which to base your paint purchases.
Additional Tips for American Journey Watercolors
Use high quality paper.
All watercolors work better on quality paper, but American Journey paints seem extra finicky. The paints performed well on all of the artist-grade papers that I tried (Kilimanjaro, Arches, Fabriano, and Saunders Waterford), but in my mixing sketchbook (a Strathmore Visual Journal with watercolor paper), pigments constantly cauliflowered, streaked, and speckled during drying. You can see examples of this below.
I understand this. I’m picky about my paper also, but I hate breaking out the good stuff for things like mixing and value studies. My friend who I asked to assist me with this review also struggled with these issues on more budget-friendly papers. As mentioned above, using a watercolor medium may be the solution.
I originally wanted to try these watercolors because I kept hearing about American Journey’s super low prices. I’m not sure what some consider “super low,” but American Journey paints are classified as artist grade and are priced accordingly.
As I mentioned earlier (see my notes on Cerulean and Permanent Rose), several of the tubes I tried cost more than any of the other brands that I use. However, many of American Journey’s colors are available in a 37 ml size that is extremely value oriented, so if you use a lot of paint and can justify the larger sizes, this brand could save you serious money.
Also, Cheap Joe’s often offers amazing sales on American Journey paints. If you click on individual colors, you can sign up to be notified of a price drop, or follow all of Cheap Joe’s sales by signing up for their newsletter at their website. (Warning: CJ enjoys blasting your inbox, so only sign up if you don’t mind constant communication.)
Check out AJ’s convenience mixes.
Joe has worked with various artists to craft some fabulous convenience colors and has produced a few favorites of his own. These unique shades are often very affordable to try, and many are absolutely stunning!
For example, if you like Prussian or Indanthrone blue, check out June Bug (top) which is a rich, clear blend of Prussian and Phthalo Green. Everyone I’ve shared this color with has loved it, and I’m also smitten with the mix.
My friend fell hard for Blue Stone (middle), a granulating, soft green and tells me she "plans to invest in the toothpaste tube size." Since this color is a mix of yellow and blue pigments, mixing reds with it will result in a variety of neutrals like browns and grays. A definite plus to a palette!
And Raw Umber Violet (bottom)... WOW what a mix! I’ll happily claim this as my American Journey signature color. This deep, warm purple is a beautiful blend and mixes extremely well. I’ve used it nonstop since I got it and have already found a permanent place for it in my palette.
So who makes American Journey watercolors?
When discussing American Journey watercolors, a question always arises: Who makes American Journey paints? I consider this a funny question, because the proper (and correct) answer is that American Journey does.
I've answered this question more in depth at my Da Vinci review (just scroll down to the DV/AJ comparison), but in all honesty, it doesn't matter who makes American Journey paints because American Journey is an independent brand and is exclusive to Cheap Joe’s.
There isn’t another paint out there like it.
A paint should be evaluated on one thing only—how it paints in your hand—not on who makes it. And overall, American Journey watercolors paint beautifully... at least in my hand.
Now where American Journey is manufactured is another question, and the answer (or at least the important part of it) is that American Journey paints are manufactured in the U.S. under strict guidelines and work ethics. So yay for American Journey!
Overview of American Journey Watercolors
Overall, I'm extremely pleased with the American Journey brand. The saturation levels of these paints are quite impressive, and most of the 37 ml tubes can be extremely affordable. These are high quality paints, and because of my good experiences with them, I plan to incorporate many of AJ's colors into my permanent palette.
However, I'm not willing to pay a lot more for them, and I'm not sure you should either. But if they suit your painting style and you enjoy using them, by all means, stock your palette... at least whenever they are on sale.
Strikingly bold color with a tendency toward opaqueness.
Mid-range to no granulation.
Needs adequate premoistening before using.
Limited mobility & dispersement.
Prices per ml vary widely.
Best on artist-grade papers.
Giveaway! Win a Watercolor Sketching Set [CLOSED]
I'm excited to share a chance for you to try these beautiful watercolors for yourself! This gorgeous giveaway includes a folding palette with samples of all the American Journey watercolors mentioned in this post (plus a few extras), a beautiful Kilimanjaro Paintbook filled with 100% cotton watercolor paper interlaced with 70 lb sketch paper, and a Cheap Joe's Pseudo Sable travel brush (you can read about how much I love these brushes here), a pencil, a white eraser, and more!